Conor McGregor and the Rest of the Top 5 Dark-Horse Title Contenders

Kristian IbarraFeatured ColumnistJune 2, 2014

Conor McGregor and the Rest of the Top 5 Dark-Horse Title Contenders

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    Just two weeks ago, TJ Dillashaw turned the MMA world upside down when he sent reigning UFC bantamweight champion Renan Barao out of the Octagon without his title.

    Many counted him out before the fight even started, criticizing the promotion for granting the seemingly unproven Team Alpha Male fighter a highly coveted title fight with Barao. It only took one round and a stunning knockdown to silence them. It took a dominant five-round performance to prove that you should never count any fighter out, no matter how underestimated.

    Dillashaw now joins the ranks of current and former champions Chris Weidman, Matt Serra, Forrest Griffin, and Frankie Edgar as champions who overcame massive odds. 

    With the exception of Serra, it would be irresponsible to count any of these fighters as dark horses in their respective divisions leading up to their title fights. It would be even more irresponsible, however, to count any of the listed dark horses out of potential title fights with any of the current crop of champions. 

    In listing these fighters, only those outside of the Top 10 of the UFC’s divisional rankings will be considered. These fighters are listed in no particular order.

Conor McGregor

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    Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    Current UFC Featherweight Ranking: No. 13

    Record: 14-2 (2-0 UFC)

    Notable Victory: Unanimous decision against Max Holloway

     

    Alright, let’s get the obvious one out of the way. As much as the phrase itself should just go out and dieyou either hate him or you love him.

    Conor McGregor’s certainly been on the fast track to UFC stardom since the Irish fighter first graced the Octagon against Marcus Brimage last year at UFC on Fuel TV 9. He only needed one minute inside the cage to prove his skills as a fighter.

    He took a little more time after the fight with a microphone in hand to prove his skills as a promoter. 

    Taking a page out of Chael Sonnen’s book of humorous truth-talking, the brash and uninhibited fighter is ensuring he’ll at least find his way to the featherweight thrown before taking a crack at the champ. 

    The UFC’s most famous trash-talker took notice when talking to SevereMMA.com last June.

    “I don’t know him,” Sonnen said. “I’ve never met him. I’ve never seen him fight, and I’m a big fan.”

    Suffering an ACL tear in his last fight, McGregor is scheduled to return against Cole Miller on July 19 in front of what could be tens of thousands of his Irish countrymen cheering him on. 

    Expect McGregor to crack the Top 10 of the UFC's featherweight division with a win.

    Expect fight fans to have a field day with McGregor with a loss.

Julianna Pena

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    Current UFC Women’s Bantamweight Ranking: No. 11

    Record: 5-2 (1-0 UFC)

    Notable Victory: TKO against Jessica Rakoczy

     

    There are only four women left on the planet who could potentially dethrone Ronda Rousey

    Two of them are currently not signed with the UFC. The other two are currently rehabbing from horrible knee injuries. 

    Julianna Pena is part of the latter.

    After destroying most of her competition on The Ultimate Fighter 18, Pena found herself surrounded by the thousands in attendance and across from Rakoczy in the finale. Unfazed by the big moment, Pena made quick work of the former pro boxer en route to becoming The Ultimate Fighter’s first female victor.

    The Venezuelan Vixen was forced to pull out a bout with No. 9 Jessica Andrade at UFC 171 last March. A tear to her ACL, MCL, LCL and meniscus kept her out of that bout and any other bouts until 2015.

    Out for an extended period of time, there’s no telling what the landscape will look like for the UFC’s women’s bantamweight division when Pena returns. In all likelihood, Rousey will remain the face of women’s MMA, welcoming Pena as one of the few conquests she has left.

Edson Barboza

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Current UFC Lightweight Ranking: No. 12

    Record: 13-2 (7-2 UFC)

    Notable Victory: KO against Terry Etim

     

    Author of what’s widely considered the most violent knockout in UFC history, Edson Barboza has been climbing the UFC’s lightweight rankings since he first signed with the promotion in 2010. 

    Boasting solid Muay Thai, Barboza is known as the only man to win two fights via leg kicks in the UFC. Even solid leg kickers in Jose Aldo and Thiago Alves haven’t accomplished that.

    To date, his only issue has been dealing with the big moment. With the depth his native division has, he hasn’t necessarily been on the cusp of a title shot yet. Losses to former WEC lightweight title contender Donald Cerrone and former WEC lightweight champion Jamie Varner have taken Barboza out of the discussion.

    He looked good against both before losing his composure or getting caught and notching the first two losses in his career.

    A win against Evan Dunham next month at UFC Fight Night 45 should keep him in the periphery as a potential dark-horse candidate in the lightweight division.

Gunnar Nelson

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Current UFC Welterweight Ranking: No. 13

    Record: 12-0-1 (3-0 UFC)

    Notable Victory: Guillotine submission against Omari Akhmedov

     

    If you watch Nelson fight for five minutes, you’d probably be too distracted with his unorthodox striking stance to realize that he’s a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

    Training under the tutelage of renowned jiu-jitsu practitioner Renzo Gracie, it’s hard to tell whether Nelson is more impressive on his feet or on the mathe throws kicks just about as well as he sinks in a rear-naked choke.

    To top it off, the dude trains at a gym named after Thor’s hammer—and he doesn’t disappoint. 

    Nelson’s scheduled to square off against undefeated up-and-coming welterweight kickboxer Ryan LaFlare next month at UFC Fight Night 46 in Dublin, Ireland. Though he’s only matched up against the No. 14 fighter in the UFC’s welterweight division, a victory should propel him into deeper waters with bigger names.

Yoel Romero

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Current UFC Middleweight Ranking: No. 12

    Record: 8-1 (4-0 UFC)

    Notable Victory: Unanimous decision against Brad Tavares

     

    In theory, Yoel Romero, an Olympic silver medalist in freestyle wrestling, is the best wrestler in the UFC. 

    In reality, Romero’s ability to throw anybody on the mat at his desire makes him the best wrestler in the UFC.

    Romero made his professional debut at the age of 31 in 2009. Two years later, he stepped up in competition against former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante. He lost the fight via second-round knockout.

    The loss wouldn’t ultimately ruin Romero’s chances of joining the UFC, though, seeing as his next fight would be against Clifford Starks at UFC on Fox 7 in 2013. He finished the fight in just under two minutes.

    Now, the owner of a four-fight winning streak, a streak that includes three TKO stoppages, Romero is primed to match himself up with stiffer competition. Though his body may not seem like it, Romero is 37 years old—leaving many assuming he doesn’t have much time to add UFC gold next to his Olympic silver medal.